Authors: Kitty French
She all but laughed. "What, so I should just come into work as if nothing has happened? Make your coffee, type your reports, and conveniently forget we've had sex?"
"Who said forget?" Lucien's eyes darkened as they settled on hers again. "I don't want to forget fucking you. I don't want to forget how you feel in my hands, or how your face looks when you come."
Sophie stared at him, dry mouthed. He had a directness that knocked the air clean out of her lungs.
"So no. Not forget. Move on." He sipped his coffee. "You can go back to being the girl who kisses envelopes before she mails them."
Sophie tried to remember that girl. It was almost impossible. She was a stranger, even though only a few weeks had passed since she’d posted that fateful letter.
"I can't do it," she said, flatly.
"Yes you can. If nothing else Sophie, we can be friends, and colleagues."
He made it sound so perfectly reasonable. So achievable. So very casual. Easy come, easy go. But then wasn't that exactly who he was?
It might be who he was, but it wasn't who she was.
"I can't, Lucien, it's too hard. I can't be friends with you, and I can't sort out the mess my life is in with you around."
Lucien looked around her small kitchen. "I take it he's not living here anymore?"
Surprised by his change of tack, Sophie shook her head and dug her nails into her palms again. Physical pain to distract from the mental pain, but the tears gathered regardless.
"Are you okay on your own?" he asked softly.
She closed her eyes.
Don't do that. Don't be gentle. I'll dissolve if you do that.
She dashed the back of her sleeve across her eyes.
"Not really." Lying would have been smarter, but it felt way beyond her emotional capabilities. "I don't know who I am anymore. I'm not sleeping. I’m hiding from the neighbours. They're probably out there now photographing your car on their mobile phones."
Lucien reached out across the table, and Sophie snatched her hands away before he could touch them.
"You should go." She dragged her eyes up to his. "Don't come here again, Lucien." Her words were little more than a whisper in the quiet room. "This is my life. I need to find a way to live it."
She didn't look up until she heard the front door bang behind him.
Lucien scowled at the kids running around his car, sending them scattering.
Sophie was right. He had no place here.
Hell only knew why he'd come here today. Hadn't he already got what he wanted? Sophie had kicked her husband to the kerb, so why didn't he feel the victory as he ought to?
Because she was broken.
It shocked him to see her so gaunt, to know that he'd set her on a long, lonely path. He hadn't thought beyond the glory of winning the battle, and he hadn't counted on Sophie being amongst the losers.
He cast a long, last look at the small neat house.
This wasn't over. Not by a mile.
Sophie closed the file on the computer screen and reached for her mobile. Even though it had only been a few weeks since she'd last worked at Hopkins Building & Double Glazing, sitting at her old desk felt like stepping back into shoes that didn't fit any more.
She knew she was lucky that Derek hadn't filled her position already, and she really ought to be more grateful that he'd taken her back on. And she was, she really was, but there was no denying that double-glazing quotes were far less scintillating than sex toy analysis reports. And as bosses went, Lucien Knight was a hard act to follow.
She glanced surreptitiously at the screen of her phone. No messages. Not that she was expecting any. Dan had gone radio silent over the last three weeks, and Lucien seemed to have taken her at her word since their last encounter.
She missed them both.
"Sophie, my girl." Derek blustered into Sophie's tiny box room of an office and squashed his not inconsiderable bulk alongside her behind the desk. Sophie swallowed hard as he laid his chubby hand on her shoulder and squeezed it whilst he squinted at her screen.
"Everything alright, love? Settling back in?" Sophie smiled tightly and nodded, trying not to notice the way his belly was bidding to escape through his straining shirt buttons.
"Found everything you need?" Derek's grip on her shoulder went from squeezing to massaging, and Sophie had to work hard to keep the grimace off her face. She nodded again, unable to speak through gritted teeth.
He was still massaging.
"I knew you'd be back. Can't keep away, eh?" he laughed dirtily, and then leaned in so his body touched against the side of Sophie's. His fingers edged along her shoulder to rub at the exposed skin at her collar; clammy, raw sausages that made Sophie's skin crawl.
"I hear on the office grapevine that your husband's got himself a piece of skirt."
needed this job.
She'd tried and failed to find anything else over the last few weeks. Coming back here had been the only immediate way she could see to pay the red bills that had started to fall through the letterbox. Derek obviously knew it too. He had her over a barrel and clearly felt that he was the ideal candidate to step into Dan's recently vacated shoes, but he'd overstepped the mark by a mile. She wasn't the same girl he'd lazily harassed in the past.
"Derek... I don't think..."
His massage turned to a grip that held her down, and his other hand landed on the side of her ribcage, horribly close to her breast.
In normal circumstances, Sophie would have made it clear to him that his advances were unacceptable, but these weren't normal circumstances or normal days. She was already battered, and this was one fight too many. Shameful tears gathered in her eyes as Derek's cigarette breath assaulted her nostrils.
"It's good to have you back, Sophie."
The telephone shrilled on the desk and broke the moment, and Derek pulled back and patted her shoulder. "You’d better get that, love. I'll come back later when the lads have gone home."
There was not going to be a later.
Sophie watched Derek shamble across the yard outside, and anger engulfed her, anger fiercer than she'd ever known before, leaving her ready to beat her fists on the glass and scream at the top of her lungs.
Too much, too much, too much.
She reached for her coat and slung her bag over her shoulder. She'd lose her home before she lost the last few shreds of self-respect she had left.
The following Monday found Sophie doing something she'd never expected to do again. No one gave her a second glance as she walked through the black glass atrium and rode the elevator to the top floor, and no one waylaid her as she walked down the plush corridor and tapped on the closed door at the end before pushing it open.
Lucien looked up from the report in his hand and stared at her in surprised silence, then slowly placed the plastic coffee cup he was holding down on the desk in front of him.
"A million years turned out to be too long," Sophie said, clicking the door shut behind her. She'd been rehearsing that comment all the way to work, determined to make a dignified entrance.
Lucien nodded slowly and gestured for her to take the seat opposite his.
"Have you already filled my job?"
He picked his pen up and tapped it idly on the desk. "A good PA is hard to find, Sophie. I'm taking my time."
She swallowed. He wasn't making it easy for her, but then she'd told him in no uncertain terms that their paths weren't going to cross again.
"Do you have any references, Ms. Black?"
Sophie sighed. So this was the game he wanted to play.
"No. I walked out of a job last week because the boss expected more than my typing skills for his money."
Lucien frowned and leaned forward, his dark shirt clinging to his defined shoulders. "Did he hurt you?" There was a rough edge to his voice that wasn't usually there.
Sophie shook her head. "Just my pride. I walked out before he could do anything else."
Lucien leaned back in his chair again, but his eyes were troubled.
"So here you are. Out of the frying pan, into the fire."
"I need a job, Lucien. That's all." Sophie fought to keep her voice steady as she said more of the words she'd practiced over and over in her head on the way there. "I'll type your reports, and I'll make your coffee, and at the end of the day, I'll put my coat on and go home again."
He nodded. "To your empty house."
Sophie's eyes flicked sharply to his. Was he fishing to find out whether Dan had moved back home? She steadied her breathing and shrugged one shoulder as she nodded.
"To my empty house."
Lucien steepled his fingers beneath his chin and studied her.
"Will you kiss my envelopes before you mail them?"
"Will you give me my job back if I say yes?"
He gestured towards the doorway to her old office.
"It's all yours."
Relief flooded Sophie's bones, and also an unexpected, disorienting sensation of safety, too.
"Just colleagues," she said.
"And friends," he murmured, with the slightest flicker of an eyebrow. He glanced sideways into Sophie's office at the gleaming coffee machine and dropped his plastic cup in the bin.
"Any chance you could start by making me a decent cup of coffee?"
Lucien sat for a second and listened to the clatter of cups and the tapping of keys on the keyboard from the room next door. Sounds that heralded the return of Sophie Black, the girl who surprised him. She'd done it once again today, just as she had the first time he'd met her. He knew how much it must have cost her to come back here today, and he wasn't fool enough to think she'd have come at all if she had any other options.
She was so much braver than she knew, and it impressed the hell out of him.
He'd grown accustomed to the silence over the weeks since she'd left, and it surprised him how much pleasure it gave him to hear Sophie next door again. He had no name for the emotion she stirred in him, and he didn't care to consider it beyond acknowledging the fact that in alleviating her money concerns by reinstating her, he could atone for the guilt he felt about his part in her unhappiness.
Besides. There was no denying the fact that she made a mean espresso.
Sophie reacquainted herself with another desk she hadn't figured on sitting behind again, but this time around there was no accompanying sense of unease. Things were as she'd left them, pen pot to the right, diary to the left. A glance inside the diary revealed notes in someone else's hand, evidence that things had been kept ticking over in her absence. Almost as if a caretaker had ensured that things were ready and waiting for her just in case she should need them.
Sophie shook the foolish thoughts from her head and clicked the computer into life, watching the familiar Knight Inc. logo emblazon itself instantly across the screen.
She'd seen that logo so many times, in so many places. Here, in this building. On the tail of Lucien's jet. And printed on the tiny bottle of neroli massage oil Lucien had used to work her into a state of boneless ecstasy in front of his roaring fire in Norway.
The land of soaring alpine mountains, of dancing night skies flashed through with more colours than a paint box, and of beautiful Vikings who could melt your knickers at twenty paces.
He was less than twenty paces away right now.
Sophie looked up from the diary to the screen as the instant message alert broke the silence in her office. There was only one person in this building who messaged her, even though she'd have been able to hear his voice perfectly well from his desk just outside her doorway.
'I'm not really hungry. I'll work through.'
It was a lie, but the idea of sharing lunch with Lucien chased away any hunger pangs.
'You need to eat. You're too pale.'
She couldn't argue with the facts. No amount of carefully applied make up could conceal the grey tinge on her skin.
'I'll get something later. Please. I'd rather.'
Sophie didn't know how to be clearer without being rude. Surely it was obvious that she needed to avoid spending unnecessary time with him? Just seeing him again that morning had affected her more than she'd thought it would. He made her breathless, and he made her feel things she didn't have the emotional wherewithal to feel right now. Her body responded to his nearness even when her head said no, and that situation had danger written all over it.
Lucien muttered something indistinguishable in the other room and Sophie heard his door bang behind him a minute or two later. She dropped her head into her hands, her palms pushed into her aching eye sockets. What the hell was she doing here? Everything in her life was jumbled. How could coming back here do anything but make her life a million times more complicated?
She knew the official answer, the one she had told herself and was ready to give to anyone else who cared to ask. She was here because it was a straight choice between this, being groped by Derek, or destitution.
But the unofficial answer lingered on the edges of her mind too, even though she refused to allow it any headroom. There was a tiny but influential element of the decision that wasn’t about those practicalities. It was because she was lonely, because she ached to feel alive again, and because being near to Lucien soothed her, which she knew was entirely ridiculous, given that he was the most lethal man she'd ever met.
Sophie puffed out the breath she'd been holding in and stared out of the picture window at the city skyline. It was vast, she was all at sea in it, and right now her job was the only lifeboat she could cling to. She'd be okay. She'd keep her head above water… just as long as she didn't cling to the skipper too.